The Poetry of Hart Crane
In August, 1928, William Carlos Williams wrote to Ezra Pound:
As to the Hart Crane-Josephson group—to hell with them all. There is good there but it’s not for me. As it stands, Crane is supposed to be the man that puts me on the shelf. But not only do I find him just as thickheaded as I am myself and quite as helplessly verbose at times but that he comes up into clarity far less often. If what he puts on the page is related to design, or thought, or emotion—or anything but disguised sentimentality and sloppy feeling—then I am licked….
Crane at that stage had published his first book of poems, White Buildings. The Bridge came in 1930, the Collected Poems in 1933, but they made no difference to Williams. In July, 1939, he wrote to Horace Gregory:
I liked the man but I stuck on his verse. We were too far apart there…. I was stumped by his verse. I suppose the thing was that he was searching for something inside, while I was all for a sharp use of the materials.
This is the gist of the case against Hart Crane. More elaborately conceived strictures are merely variations on Williams’s theme.
But it is well to keep the theme in mind while reading Mr. Lewis’s study of the poet. The book starts where a more exacting account might hope to end, with Crane as “one of the finest modern poets in our language, and one of the dozen-odd major poets in American history.” Mr. Lewis takes this estimate for granted, the case closed. He does not foster critical debate, quotes other critics only when they bring Crane gifts of praise. Richard Blackmur, for instance, wrote the most damaging study of Crane’s language, as well as the most illuminating. Mr. Lewis quotes him when the opinion is golden, but only then. F. R. Leavis was not alone in finding The Bridge “a wordy chaos, both locally and in sum,” the poet devoid of “any relevant gift.” John Peale Bishop said of Thomas Wolfe that he “achieved probably the utmost intensity of which incoherent writing is capable,” and thought of Crane in the same way, a poetic achievement similarly disabled. Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, and other qualified readers have written of Crane’s genius in terms which imply that an imputation of genius, in this case, does not settle the critical question. The debate continues.
The most serious charge against Mr. Lewis is that he does not take up the challenge, he elects not to see the gauntlet. Indeed, as the book proceeds, the praise becomes more extreme. At one point Crane is “the most immediately communicative of twentieth-century American poets.” Later, taking Crane’s will for the deed, Mr. Lewis calls him “the religious poet par excellence in his generation,” The Bridge “the only large-scale work of literature in its generation which…is finally concerned not with the death of God but with the birth of God.” This reminds me of Yvor Winters’s remark, with which I agree, that “nothing save confusion can result from our mistaking the Mississippi Valley for God.”
IAM NOT CONVINCED that Mr. Lewis has gone the best way to establish Crane in these high terms. Encomiastic criticism is a fine thing, but it must be attended by scruple. To read Crane again with Mr. Lewis’s book at hand is extremely rewarding, but it leaves me with the feeling that if Crane had been somewhat harder upon himself his encomiast would not now be compelled to sing everything fortissimo. Mr. Lewis often glosses the poems with great subtlety, and I am grateful to him for clearing up many difficulties, but he rarely looks hard at the language, the way the words are put to work. So the difference between bad work and good work is often ignored, unless it obtrudes too violently. Even then, Mr. Lewis is resourceful. Most readers, I fancy, find Crane’s “Cape Hatteras” very bad. Mr. Lewis, determined to save it, calls it “a very deliberate and conscious self-parody.” If this goes, anything goes. There is an impression, throughout the book, that rhetorical verve is serving instead of criticism; the effect is often to discourage close attention to the words on the page. So it is hardly surprising that Mr. Lewis’s book is full of misprints, errors of transcription which regularly make nonsense of Crane’s texts and disfigure those of Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, William James, Henry Adams, Stevens, and Eliot. Marianne Moore said of Crane that “a writer is unfair to himself when he is unable to be hard on himself.” Crane and his critic are frequently easy on themselves.
Mr. Lewis places Crane in a psychological landscape inhabited by Virgil, Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Laforgue, Eliot, Stevens, Cummings, and Hemingway. This is proper if a writer is defined by the company he keeps, but the present company is not allowed to exert critical pressure on Crane, on the nature and range of his art. The effect is, at best, picturesque; at worst, misleading. No critical point is made. Mr. Lewis gives an elaborate account of Crane’s poem “Chaplinesque,” but he does not encourage the reader to think of other poems that might measure that poem’s achievement. William Empson’s poem “This Last Pain,” for instance, is demonstrably a better poem on a similar theme. So the argument against Crane must be fleshed out a little before Mr. Lewis’s version is endorsed.
It may be said that Crane could do anything in poetry so long as it required nothing more than genius, an excited sensibility, and the English language. Reading him, one is reminded of Eliot’s comment on Thomas Hardy, that”at times his style touches sublimity without ever having passed through the stage of being good.” Certainly it is true that Crane cultivated intensity at the expense of every other poetic value, as if he numbered only the hectic hours. Even in his most controlled poems the experience is promoted rather than defined; or it is defined in the loose sense of setting an outer limit of possibility within which the reader’s sensibility is urged to roam at will. Mr. Lewis’s sensibility is ready. The first stanza of “The Wine Menagerie” reads:
Invariably when wine redeems the sight,
Narrowing the mustard scansions of the eyes,
A leopard ranging always in the brow
Asserts a vision in the slumbering gaze.
Presumably the mustard scansions are the sharp divisions between one thing and another, imposed by the eyes, and in the redeemed sight these are narrowed. Mr. Lewis comments:
And in the narrowing glance, eyes become capable of “mustard scansions.” This is a fine and impudent phrase that I can imagine no other modern poet devising. It combines the notion of extreme sharpness, like mustard, with that of scanning, as eyes are said to scan a situation; and then it pulls both notions under the control of scansion, or the art of appraising the meter of a poem.
Mr. Lewis does not remark that, according to the grammar, the “scansions” themselves are narrowed. Instead, he insinuates a meaning of scansion, equivalent to “scanning,” for which the dictionaries give no warrant. The fact that “scan” is common to both is not enough. Mr. Lewis is prompted to this critical osmosis by the presence of “sight” and “eyes” nearby, but the prompt should not be taken. I concede that in Crane’s agglutinative style we are encouraged to make anything stick. Ostensibly, Mr. Lewis is offering a close reading, but in fact he is trying to fill the empty spaces that stretch beyond the natural boundary of the words to that outer limit which, almost independently of the words, marks the reach of Crane’s will. In this reading it is essential that a word with three loosely related meanings be deemed three times better than a word which makes sharp use of the materials.
It should be acknowledged that Crane asks to be read in this way, according to a “logic of metaphor” which is permissive enough to include a great deal of bad writing. Mr. Lewis speaks of the poet’s vision penetrating “through the junkheap of the actual toward the ideal.” Several times he invokes “the visionary and loving transfiguration of the actual world.” Part of the justification for this emphasis is a letter Crane wrote to Gorham Munson in June, 1922. Reporting the “higher consciousness” he sensed in a dentist’s chair, a celebrated illumination, “I felt the two worlds,” Crane said, “and at once.” In The Bridge, according to Mr. Lewis, the “old and fallen world” failed Crane, and his art was now grounded in the nature and power of the imagination itself. But until this failure was complete, the world was capable of transfiguration. There is a remarkable letter in which Crane explained to Allen Tate:
Having absorbed [Eliot] enough we can trust ourselves as never before, in the air or on the sea. I, for instance, would like to leave a few of his “negations” behind me, risk the realm of the obvious more, in quest of new sensations, humeurs.
But Crane did not commit himself to the realm of the obvious: nor did he ascribe any value to its obviousness. So he found it all too easy to move from the junkheap, as Mr. Lewis calls it, to the ideal. Because his poems are assertions, they make the trip by will; a trip facilitated by the presumptive logic of metaphor and a vague sense of cosmic evolution. “We are all going on in the regular course of things toward a higher consciousness of life and what it means,” he writes. There is no need to fast and pray and strive for a relation to the realm of the obvious. When readers say that Crane never found a theme, they mean that he found, too easily, something that took the place of a theme: hints and guesses of relation, too diffuse to be demanding. Anything is a relation if you say it is.
Predictably, Crane was fascinated by bridges. The exemplary gesture of his poems is that of arching, straddling, crossing, swinging, stretching, spanning, Brooklyn Bridge “vaults” the sea. In “Atlantis” Crane invokes “arching strands of song.” In “Sunday Morning Apples” “A boy runs with a dog before the sun, straddling/Spontaneities…” In “The River” the train “straddles” the hill, “iron strides the dew.” But you do not find a relation to something merely by swinging across it; nor do you transfigure the world by transcending it. “The imagination spans beyond despair,” Crane says in “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” “Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.” This is true of Crane’s imagination, which insists on going “beyond” without going “through.” Thoroughfare is closed to his will and therefore to his style. Blackmur said of him:
He wrote in a language of which it was the virtue to accrete, modify, and interrelate moments of emotional vision—moments at which the sense of being gains its greatest access—moments at which, by the felt nature of knowledge, the revealed thing is its own meaning; and he attempted to apply his language, in his major effort, to a theme that required a sweeping, discrete, indicative, anecdotal language, a language in which, by force of movement, mere cataloguing can replace and often surpass representation.
This reminds us, incidentally, that Crane is not at all like Whitman, despite his own insistence and “Cape Hatteras.” An indicative style was available to Whitman because he was at home in the realm of the obvious and trusted its relations. Crane was not at home there and had only the vaguest grasp of any relations. Whitman could place one obvious thing beside another and indicate a relation between them because a relation was certified by his whole sense of life. He did not need to insist. Crane had to insist, for the same reason that people whistle in the dark. In his poems, therefore, words which testify to relations are doomed to exaggerate them. His “Elizabethan” style is implicated in this predicament. In “The Wine Menagerie” he writes:
Build freedom up about me and distill
In “The Harbor Dawn”:
Cool feathery fold, suspends, distills
This wavering slumber….
In “The Dance” a star “bled into the dawn.”
Now and again, Crane had misgivings about the exemplary figure of his poetry. In 1926, after reading Spengler’s Decline of the West, he wrote a rueful letter to Waldo Frank about The Bridge. “The very idea of a bridge,” he said, “depends upon certain “spiritual convictions.” In this age of disbelief “the bridge as a symbol today has no significance beyond an economical approach to shorter hours, quicker lunches, behaviorism and toothpicks.” I am not sure, one exaggeration stirring another, that those who use Brooklyn Bridge as a mere instrument to these daily ends are not wiser, after all, than the arching poet, on the grounds that a feasible use is better than an impossibly sublime demand. Mediating between exaggerations, Marianne Moore’s poem “Granite and Steel” praises the “enfranchising cable” of the same bridge, sings John Roebling’s harmony of the eye and the eye of the mind, and leaves the bridge as it is, “an actuality,” as it is, subject only to the flick of Miss Moore’s imagination. It seems clear to me that Miss Moore has chosen the better way, the more poetic as well as the more religious way. The “force of movement” which Blackmur describes is, in Miss Moore’s poem, a quality in the syntax which, moving things along, keeps each in its proper place. It is an achievement of luminous intelligence; call it, in Williams’s word, measure. Perhaps it is worth remarking now that the resplendent things in Crane’s poetry are marvels of diction. Where the poems fail, normally, they fail in syntax, force of movement, indication.
This brings us back to The Bridge. Mr. Lewis, trying hard to enforce the unity of the poem against those readers who find it a heap of gorgeous fragments, grounds everything in “the visionary imagination.” This means, in cooler terms, that the unity of the poem is totally dependent upon the sensibility of the poet, its “plot” the graph of his interests. Mr. Lewis speaks of “the gradual permeation of an entire culture by the power of poetic vision,” but in fact he defeats argument by making the poem an idealist assertion, Crane’s Supreme Fiction. It may be necessary to settle for this, since no other mode of unity seems to apply. Kenneth Burke once observed, reviewing G. H. Mead’s Philosophy of the Act, that “the strategy of romantic philosophy [which Mead likens to the beginnings of self-consciousness at adolescence] was to identify the individual Self metaphysically with an Absolute Self, thereby making the reflexive act the very essence of the universe, a state of affairs that is open to lewd caricature.” This gives Crane’s poetry, and especially The Bridge, the right connotations. It also glosses Mr. Lewis’s tendency, inevitable if you begin where he begins, to read Crane’s poems as parables of the poetic imagination. Even “The Air Plant” is turned in this direction. The trouble with the argument is that Crane’s poems soon begin to sound like “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Stevens’s “Tom-tom, c’est moi.” I am not sure that Mr. Lewis intends to go as far as this, but I think he must, to be consistent.
A few details, local disagreements. Dealing with those superb lines in “Chaplinesque”—
We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb…
Mr. Lewis cites a passage from Moby-Dick where the whale “dallied with the doomed craft.” But Crane’s verb is transitive, closer to Marlowe’s in Faustus: “But wherefore do I dally my revenge?” Mr. Lewis thinks that “puckered index” in the same poem refers to the Catholic Index; an interpretation no more persuasive than the later notion that the “twelve” in “The Tunnel” are the Twelve Apostles. He quotes a passage from “The Wine Menagerie”:
This competence—to travel in a tear
Sparkling alone, within another’s will.
Then he comments:
On his journey toward fuller vision, the poet will “travel in a tear,” and he will sparkle alone, submissive to the will of another. That “other” is of course the wind; and the reference to it is equivalent to the phrase about joining “the entrainments of the wind” in “Passage.”
I may be missing the point, but I can make nothing of this. Crane’s words seem to me to claim a new poetic power, new to Crane, that of dramatic apprehension; the power that Keats and Hazlitt ascribed to Shakespeare as distinct from Wordsworth’s “egotistical sublime.” “He was nothing in himself,” Hazlitt said of Shakespeare, “but he was all that others were, or that they could become,” set off against those modern poets who surround “the meanest objects with the morbid feelings and devouring egotism of the writers’ own minds.” Crane’s claim, if my reading is just, arises from his discovered ability, in the first part of the poem, to enter imaginatively into the lives of other people, the quarreling couple and the “urchin who has left the snow.”
These are details. If, on the whole, I disagree with Mr. Lewis’s presentation of Crane and think that he has pitched his estimate too high, this is not to deny that his reading of particular poems is always lively and often definitive. Perhaps what I miss in his book is a sense of scale: the poems that count are not sufficiently distinguished from poorer work. I would prefer to display the major achievement (such as “The Broken Tower,” “Repose of Rivers,” “Voyages” I, II, V, and VI, “The River,” “To Brooklyn Bridge,” “The Harbor Dawn,” “Legend,” “Paraphrase,” and “Passage”) rather than to make large claims for everything. Even within the best work, discrimination is necessary. Very few of the poems are perfectly accomplished. Indeed, Crane still seems to me, even after reading Mr. Lewis’s study and going back over the poems, a poet whose reach far exceeded his grasp; greater in short poems than in long poems; greater in stanza than in poem, in line than in stanza. Perhaps it is significant that his poems stay in the mind as phrases, often drawing away from their setting: “Moidores of spent grace”; “I dream the too-keen cider—the too-soft snow”; “the eye That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower”; these to stand for many. There are short passages in Crane which for rhetorical grandeur are as conclusive as anything in Yeats, Eliot, Pound, or Stevens. What he lacks, in this company, is the force of continuity and development. His work is not, finally, greater than the sum of its parts. At this point I am afraid my disagreement with Mr. Lewis is complete.